Oliver Queen has an Oliver Queen problem. “Identity” suggests that Oliver is more or less comfortable in his redefined, non-lethal vigilante role. Leaving aside the shocking, potentially cataclysmic mistake he makes at the end by going back to Laurel’s office—and we’ll discuss that in more detail next week, when we know the fallout of his apparent capture—Oliver is coolly efficient as the crime-fighter formerly known as the Hood. He needs a couple tries to take down China White and her goons, but he has no particular trouble adhering to his newly instituted no-kill rule. He takes down Michael Jai White’s Bronze Tiger with his latest ingenious trick arrow, and China White’s attempt to get inside his head doesn’t seem to work at all; he’s perfectly fine with the prospect that the vigilante will never be thought of as a hero, so long as he is able to keep doing heroic things. But in his civilian guise, Oliver stumbles. He makes a potentially fatal mistake when he promises to be the public champion of Sebastian Blood’s cause, where a more seasoned crime fighter would know not to overextend his alter ego’s commitments. He also proves singularly unable to deal with Laurel’s newfound hatred of the vigilante, and that’s what leads him to his ultimate mistake. And as soon as he takes off the hood, he’s kind of a huge jerk to Diggle and Felicity.
This episode is very explicitly about how people reconcile contradictory sides of themselves. Oliver’s flashback girlfriend Shado mentions the yin and the yang in her effort to convince a traumatized Oliver that he can be both a hero and a killer, while Diggle explains that his relationship with Carly ended because he just couldn’t be his brother’s would-be avenger and his widow’s new boyfriend at the same time. And yet the clearest delineation of this idea comes during Sebastian Blood’s big speech excoriating Oliver, as he declares that the Queen family scion has no interest in helping Starling City just as the vigilante rides into battle with the Triad. Blood is obviously wrong in a technical sense: Oliver didn’t skip the event because he would rather be off partying somewhere, as Blood clearly assumes. And yet, there’s an underlying truth to his argument that Oliver Queen, the billionaire industrialist, is not in a position to save Starling City, because that person barely even exists, as his responsibilities and commitments will always be trumped by those of the vigilante. Last season, Oliver’s activities as the Hood only left enough time for his civilian alter ego to be the owner of a hot new nightclub, and the absentee owner at that. This season, Oliver is attempting to be both Emerald Archer and crusading philanthropist, and it’s not exactly shocking that everything falls apart almost immediately.
But then, this entire reading legitimatizes the notion that Oliver contains multiple distinct identities, that the Oliver Queen that Diggle and Felicity deal with is somehow fundamentally different from the vigilante identity he adopts to fight crime, and both are wholly separate from “Oliver Queen,” the moderately reformed playboy and new public face of Queen Consolidated. That might just be a bullshit rationalization. Indeed, Diggle says it weirds him out no end that Oliver consistently refers to himself in the third person, as though Oliver feels absolutely zero connection to the person that everyone else sees when they look at him. Even Felicity’s objections to playing secretary are suggestive of this larger issue. Oliver is perfectly happy adopting some meaningless secret identity—and it probably doesn’t hurt that his secret identity is CEO—but Felicity isn’t comfortable spending all her days pretending to be something she considers beneath her qualifications. And even when Oliver does reveal his more human side, as when he asks Diggle about Carly, he does so in a way that shows little real understanding or empathy. It’s not that he’s simply asking because he thinks that’s what a normal person should do—whatever else one might say about Oliver, he isn’t a sociopath—but his genuine interest seems to be less about being a friend and more about reestablishing his own humanity and distracting himself from his vigilante activities.
This is where Arrow’s soap opera elements can actually be put to good use, where it’s inherent CW-ness can be an actual strength. Superhero stories frequently subscribe to the idea that only one alter ego is a genuine part of the hero’s “true” personality. Batman is almost always the “real” personality while Bruce Wayne is just a façade (although the Christopher Nolan movies arguably went the other way with that concept), and Superman stories generally have to decide whether Clark Kent or Kal-El will be treated as the essential part of the character. Such dualities have made for powerful stories, but they basically enshrine the idea that superheroes must deny or dismiss a huge part of themselves as somehow fake. “Identity,” however, suggests that Oliver’s current duality is really just the coping mechanism he hit upon after murdering that goon back on the island, and his friends aren’t going to let him hide behind such lies forever. It’s actually important on Arrow that Oliver offer a real apology to Diggle and earn that cup of coffee from Felicity.
Based on “Identity,” the long-term goal of Arrow isn’t necessarily for Oliver to become a good crime-fighter, as that comes relatively easily to him. No, the overriding goal is for him to become a good person and perhaps even to unite his divergent identities. Such personal growth is certainly not unprecedented in superhero fiction, but a long-form storytelling machine such as a television show offers a unique opportunity to explore those ideas in detail. While the contours of Oliver’s heroic arc are familiar—particularly in how he seems to be creating some of his own worst enemies, starting with the enraged alderman—the particular emphases feel different.
All that said, “Identity” is far from a perfect episode of television. It completely wastes Michael Jai White as Bronze Tiger. In the comics, the character is an antihero and a martial arts expert; in tonight’s story, he’s basically just an off-brand, villainous Wolverine. White’s snarling delivery of the line “No kill shots? I was promised a fight!” readily suggests all the potential he could bring to the show, and the quickly interrupted fight scenes are mere teasers of what he’s capable. Some of the dialogue is cheesy, and I leave it to the conscience of the individual viewer as to whether that’s a good thing; honestly, Diggle’s “Healthcare has enough problems without you punks!” is so shamelessly goofy that it might just loop back around to being awesome.
More to the point, this is an episode dominated by setup, both in the present and in the flashback sequences. While “Identity” hints at potential long-term tensions between Slade Wilson, Oliver, and Shado, it’s only really in the final sequence in the cave that the show clarifies just where their story might be headed this season. The Triad threat this week is decidedly perfunctory, more there to help establish more complex threats like Sebastian Blood than anything else. The more personal story of Oliver’s identity that this episode elects to focus on means that “Identity” is largely successful, but it’s likely not possible to fully judge this story until we see just where all this is headed. But then, whatever happens next, let’s just admire the fact that Arrow has already thrown Oliver into Laurel’s seemingly inescapable trap after just two episodes. The show appears to have learned from fellow CW shows like The Vampire Diaries in the art of burning through plot at the fastest possible rate. That means that, even if Arrow doesn’t succeed, it’s unlikely to be boring.
- I continue to be surprised at just how well Thea and Roy’s story is working this season. The show has done great work in giving Thea a sense of direction, and she comes off as the most rational person on the show when she tells Roy that she won’t stop him, but she refuses to watch him get himself killed. Roy agreeing to become the vigilante’s eyes and ears in the Glades is another admirable example of Arrow resolving its subplots and moving on to new ones, and it’s nice to see a red arrow peeking out of Roy’s back pocket, even if it will inevitably drive another wedge between the young couple.
- Stephen Amell has grown into his role nicely over the show’s run, and the best evidence yet of what he can now do is Oliver comes early in the episode, where he confronts Roy and describes the burning anger with the world that they both share. It’s a fantastic monologue, a moment of raw, intense honesty that makes it clear why Oliver can’t give up being the vigilante. The show moves past it a little too quickly so that it can get into the hospital plot, but hopefully Arrow will recognize just how crucial a moment that scene was for both Oliver and Amell.
- Seriously, we’re going to need a new name for the vigilante soon, because I can’t just keep calling him the vigilante or the Hood. Early indications from the show’s producers are that he’s going to settle on plain old “Arrow” for this season, but I’m going to wait until he actually adopts the new name before I drop it into the reviews. After all, if “Identity” demonstrates anything, it’s that the specific ways in which we think about ourselves are hugely important, so I can’t jump the gun on a title Oliver himself isn’t ready to use. Still, that doesn’t change how clumsy it is to keep calling him “the vigilante.”